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In Move to Tight End, Mel Farr Jr. Puts Pro Career on the Line

October 22, 1987|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Mel Farr Jr. has done everything just right to have himself in prime position for the National Football League draft next spring.

For starters, he was born to a UCLA All-American who became an All-Pro for the Detroit Lions. Good choice of lineage for a football player.

He worked diligently at his grades and at track and football while at Brother Rice High School in Birmingham, Mich., so that he would have his pick of colleges.

And since picking UCLA, he has stayed right on schedule, playing as a first-year freshman, becoming the starting fullback as a sophomore, becoming a bigger, stronger, better fullback as a junior and a still bigger, stronger, better fullback as a senior.

One glance confirms that he has logged many hours in the weight room and that he's not kidding about the 400-pound bench press or the 500-pound squat.

He has had a couple of injury setbacks, but he has handled those as best he could, too, making quick comebacks even from broken bones in his lower back.

The team needed him. And playing for a winning team counts, too. The pros try not to miss anyone with talent, but they are darned sure not going to overlook a senior who is playing on TV on New Year's Day.

He has even grown on schedule. He is 6 feet tall and carries his 229 pounds in all the right places.

He won't go on record with a speed in the 40-yard dash because he hasn't been timed in two years. "I'm a lot faster than that, now," he said. Suffice to say that he was a high school sprinter and hasn't slowed down any.

Credentials? He's averaging 4.6 yards a carry this season, which is also what he averaged in his first three seasons. He has carried the ball only 24 times--once for a touchdown. He is fourth among UCLA receivers with 9 catches for 84 yards and another touchdown.

But fullbacks are more fairly judged not by their own yardage but by the yardage of the tailback they risk their bodies to block for. That would be his good friend, Gaston Green, who recently raised the UCLA career record to 3,339 yards.

Skills? His coaches have spent three years praising his techniques and his desire to improve. He's a student of the game who knows that he has never really been perfect.

"Perfection is what you strive for," Farr said. "Hopefully, you get closer to it every time you play. But you never get there."

So now all he has to do is play out the season, the consummate fullback, right?

Well, no. Halfway through his senior season, Farr is making a position change. When the Bruins play California at the Rose Bowl Saturday, Farr will probably start at tight end.

Which brings us to a final category in this checklist of qualifications.

How about attitude? The most enthusiastic thing he can say about the move is that it doesn't bother him--which is a far cry from, "Wow, what a great opportunity." So how is he handling it?

With his usual prudent poise. It would be wildly out of character for Mel Farr Jr. to make a fuss over a coach's decision. His maturity and intelligence show in that he actually saw the possibility developing weeks before starting tight end Charles Arbuckle got hurt. He had himself ready to accept it. As he put it, "I've been warming up to it."

Farr has been used at tight end in an alignment that uses two wide receivers, two tight ends and has Green alone in the backfield behind the quarterback. He also was asked to fill in at tight end during practices because of injuries to Arbuckle's backups. When Arbuckle hurt a knee last Saturday, nobody had to draw Farr a picture.

His confidence shows when he says he'll be able to do a good job at tight end, instead of worrying about how unfair it is to ask him to stick his neck out and look like a rookie at this stage in his career.

It's still primarily a blocking job, he reasons, even if the guys he'll be blocking will be taller and have longer arms than he has. Also, he knows the offense well and has been running pass routes and catching the ball as a back.

No chance of a star tantrum from this guy. Ask him how he manages to stay so humble in light of his successes and he'll tell you: "Fullback is a very humbling position."

Taking a step back to survey the situation, Farr concluded: "There are a couple of ways the pros might look at this. I hope they look at it as Mel Farr is a very versatile player who will do what is needed for the team. I hope they don't look at it as Mel Farr is a jack of all trades and a master of none."

Surely he has some contacts in the pro ranks who might be telling him what they think, what his value is? Surely his dad has picked up some hints?

Farr shakes his head. "No, please," he said. "I don't even want to think about that now. Like everybody else, I'd love to play pro ball, but I'm not going to get caught up in trying to figure what they're looking for and how I fit what they're looking for. Who is interested? Who else are they interested in? It's impossible. I'm going to stay out of that, just play out the season and see what happens."

And if, for some unfathomable reason, the NFL is not in his future?

With a shrug, Farr said: "That's why my dad keeps on me about my education."

When Farr eventually graduates--it won't be this spring, since he did not have a red-shirt year--he'll have a degree in psychology. His specialization, though, is in business administration. That's so he can go back to Oak Park, Mich., and help his dad run the car dealership.

Mel and his younger brother, Mike, a wide receiver at UCLA, know that pro football is not a prerequisite for coming home, but a degree is.

With his most serious expression, Farr said: "I don't know if I'll play pro football, but I will graduate. Or my dad will not let me in the door. He's a pretty big guy, too."

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